(Daily Montanan) The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday voted to stay a lower court order blocking implementation of a series of GOP-backed voting restrictions, ensuring that provisions of two bills passed in 2021 will be in effect for the June 7 primary despite an ongoing legal challenge.
The court’s ruling restores, for now, sections of House Bill 176 and Senate Bill 169 that end Election Day voter registration in Montana and remove student identification cards from the statutory list of primary voter ID — in other words, voters who choose to use student IDs to vote will now need to provide additional documentation to access a ballot.
Voter registration now ends noon the day before the election.
In April, a Yellowstone County district court judge preliminarily blocked implementation of both restrictions pending resolution of a constitutional challenge to the bills brought by the Montana Democratic Party and student and indigenous groups, who argued the bills unconstitutionally limit access to the franchise.
Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen appealed the injunction order the Supreme Court, arguing that some local elections last year had already been conducted under the new laws, and that reversing the restrictions would cause voter confusion and “upend” the office’s voter education efforts.
The high court agreed — with the exception of Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who noted he would deny Jacobsen’s motion. The purpose of a preliminary injunction, the court’s May 17 order says, is to preserve the status quo and minimize harm to all parties pending resolution of the case. And because certain elections had already taken place by the time the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the bills, preserving the status quo would mean maintaining the restrictions in the two bills.
“In this case the status quo for the electorate—’the last actual, peaceable, noncontested condition which preceded the pending controversy’—leaves SB 169 and HB 176 in effect,” the court order reads. “Plaintiffs have not contradicted Jacobsen’s assertion that 337,000 Montanans voted under the current statutory provisions in 2021, and Plaintiffs did not move to enjoin the enactments prior to the occurrence of those elections.”
Both parties have argued that either removing or restoring the restrictions this close to the election would cause voter confusion, with plaintiff Montana Youth Action stating in one filing that staying the injunction would constitute the third time these laws have changed before the primary.
The Supreme Court responded that “some voter confusion and disruption of election administration appears inevitable,” but that it places the greatest weight on the fact that “elections have actually been conducted under the statutes as enacted by SB 169 and HB 176—elections that a large portion of Montana voters participated in.”
A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office confirmed that the student ID and Election Day registration restrictions will be in place by the next election. Jacobsen, in a statement, said she was glad “the Supreme Court recognized the importance of orderly, safe, and secure elections.”
Montana Democratic Party executive director Sheila Hogan said in a statement of her own that the party strongly encourages “Montanans to register and vote early for this primary election.”